Juwita Suwito performing in Ikano Power Centre (all pics courtesy of Juwita Suwito)
NOT many can proclaim themselves to be a first-generation Malaysian, but acclaimed singer-songwriter Juwita Suwito is able to do just that.
The former Malaysian Idol vocal coach, who worked with the finalists on the show’s first and second seasons, started off in the professional music scene in her late teens as a backing vocalist for other artistes such as Ning Baizura and Casey.
She has since released three albums: Brand New World (2004), For Real (2006), and Take Five with Juwita Suwito at Avanti (live recording, 2008). Brand New World was the winner for Best Local English Album at the AIM (Malaysian Music Industry) Awards in 2005, in addition to being nominated in three other categories.
Juwita is passionate about women’s issues, and has performed at the International Women’s Summit in Brisbane, Australia, in 2003, and again in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2007. She has been the National General Secretary of YWCA Malaysia since 2002, and co-chaired the World YWCA Governance Taskforce from 2004 to 2007. The YWCA is a global volunteer membership movement of 25 million women and girls in 125 countries.
“In the Klang Valley, our work focuses a lot on education and socioeconomic empowerment to enable women and girls to end cycles of violence in their communities. We also provide leadership development and awareness raising programmes, which are open to women and girls of all faiths and backgrounds,” Juwita tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview on 6 Jan 2010.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Juwita Suwito: I was born in Terendak Camp, Malacca, and spent my early years between Tranquerah and Klebang Besar. Just before I turned 10, my family moved to Kuala Lumpur, where we lived for five years. But I’d say I really “grew up” during my upper secondary school years in Klang.
Can you trace your ancestry?
I’m a first-generation Malaysian! My dad was Indonesian. He often mentioned Medan and Palembang, so I gather he must have grown up in Sumatera before his family moved to Jakarta.
I am told that he travelled to Singapore on an open barge to study at the Trinity Theological College. During his assignment to the Peranakan Malay-speaking congregation of Geylang Straits Chinese Methodist Church, he met my mum, a Singaporean, who was one of the resident organists there.
They soon got married and received their first posting to Malacca in 1965. When Malaysia and Singapore separated, my parents decided to stay in Malaysia as permanent residents.
In 1967, to limit the influence of Chinese Communists and to encourage the ethnic Chinese to assimilate, the Indonesian government under the Suharto regime required Chinese Indonesian individuals to change their names. My dad decided to take on the name Elkanah Tulus Suwito — the family name bearing some resemblance to his original name, Thé Kim Soei. He soon became fondly known as the Rev ET Suwito.
That, in short, is how God got me born and bred in Malaysia with the name Juwita Suwito.
Juwita’s maternal grandmotherMy dad’s parents were Thé Tiauw Liong and Whie Biauw Nio. My paternal grandfather was a businessperson who weathered the good times and bad times, ranging from selling homemade ice cream to running a hotel. My mom’s parents were Lim Guan Quee and Chew Poh Neo. Her father came to Singapore from China with his parents, and rose through the ranks as an accountant at (British telecommunications company) Cable & Wireless.
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
There was a field with a rain tree in front of our home in Tranquerah. After every downpour, the field would transform into a shallow “lake” and invisible frogs would strike up their chorus, inviting me to come out and float paper boats.
The house itself was usually abuzz either with music or the fast-paced rhythm of manual typewriters from my dad’s home office. He was a key player in the translation of the first Bahasa Malaysia al-Kitab (Bible), so both he and my mum were continually preparing draft after draft that would go back and forth to the team of translators to ensure its accuracy.
Once every year or so, my family would go on a holiday with my Singaporean relatives. During one of these, a friendly argument broke out. I was adamant that Singapore had detached itself from Malaysia, simply because my history textbook said so. My cousins, who had obviously read a different textbook, insisted that Malaysia had forced them out of the federation.
I guess experiencing these kinds of exchanges early in life helped me realise that what we “know” isn’t always right or true. It also taught me to appreciate our differences. I learnt that it is possible to squarely acknowledge our inadequacies and still be proud to be Malaysian.
Juwita’s father (right) and grandfatherWhat are the stories you hold onto the most from your family, and how do you connect with them?
My dad once commented that if his grandfather were alive, he would never have believed that tonnes of steel could fly. He was referring to airplanes, of course. Flying was a major luxury when I was growing up, but I still can’t grasp the notion that there was a time when one had to spend weeks or months at sea to get to a place we could easily fly to today.
Dad passed away when I was 18. I found myself flying more and more for work and gigs, and often remember his random comment, especially when travelling alone. It still gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling.
I mentioned that my mum was a church organist who also plays the piano. When she was young, her parents could only afford to send one of her siblings for music classes. Her elder brother, being the only boy, got the privilege. Thankfully, her brother put the lessons to good use. While he practised, my mum literally watched and learnt!
Both stories made me realise that I should never take things for granted — be it our rights, resources, or simply the people around us.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
A young Juwita in front of the pianoThat’s a hard one. I don’t believe I’ve ever struggled with my identity as a Malaysian. Lots of people here are curious about my ethnicity because of my name. If time permits, I usually explain that my dad’s [Chinese Indonesian] and my mom’s Singaporean Peranakan. If I’m forced to give a one-word answer, I’d just say I’m Chinese. But I feel much more comfortable when I introduce myself as a Malaysian to foreign friends.
What I do struggle with is that intermittent feeling of being a Cinderella in my own homeland. It hurts because, like many other Malaysians, I really do love my country. To me, it’s a paradox that 1Malaysia is being drummed into people who already appreciate the spirit of being one nation.
Wouldn’t it be great if the government started grooving to its own beat instead? One of the first steps they could take would be to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
Well, for a start, there are some Malaysia identities that I hope will last and thrive forever like our folk arts — the dikir barat, kuda kepang, sumazau, etc.; our food-centric culture — sipping teh tarik at mamak [stalls] below the trees, open homes especially during festive seasons…the list goes on.
Juwita (fourth from left) with family
There’s much room for improvement in the socio-political scene, though. I would really like a Malaysia in which all its citizens are free to achieve their full potential without being impeded by glass ceilings; a Malaysia that no longer lives in the shadow of its inherited divide-and-rule syndrome, but enables its people to truly be one; a Malaysia in which there is freedom of religion for everyone; a Malaysia that has an ethos of excellence and zero-tolerance toward anything short of integrity in ourselves and in all our leaders.
But in the nearer future, it would be pretty cool if I didn’t have to wonder if the public toilets are clean when nature makes a sudden call.
Read other Found in Malaysia interviews